When Barack Obama welcomes more than 50 world leaders to Washington on Thursday ahead of his fourth and final nuclear security summit, one of the most important chairs will be empty.
Russia is thought to possess more nuclear weapons than any other country, including the US. Together the cold war foes share more than 90% of the world’s arsenal. So President Vladimir Putin’s decision to boycott the high-level talks threatens to turn them into an elaborate anticlimax, even as fears of nuclear terrorism are on the up.
“This is the last of the summits and Putin isn’t even participating,” said Professor Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington DC. “It’s going to lose momentum at a time we need to be increasing momentum.”
Indeed, one of Obama’s signature foreign policy initiatives is now seen by some as a metaphor for his presidency: laudable for some real and significant achievements but incremental rather than revolutionary, ultimately falling short of ambitious goals, including his own.
Nuclear talks appear to be a victim of the tensions between Washington and Moscow in general and Obama and Putin in particular. Earlier this week, for example, the American president memorably recalled how Putin had disagreed with some of the statements about foreign policy he had made in an interview with the Atlantic magazine. “I pointed out to him, of course, that unlike you, Vladimir, I don’t get to edit the piece before it’s published.”
In an opinion column in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Obama argued that the US and Russia should negotiate to further reduce their nuclear stockpiles. “Our massive cold war nuclear arsenal is poorly suited to today’s threats,” he said. But the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Reuters that Russia was skipping the summit because of a “shortage of mutual cooperation” in working out the agenda.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, described the decision as “a missed opportunity for Russia above all”, adding: “Frankly, all they’re doing is isolating themselves in not participating as they have in the past.” But he insisted that the countries have “ongoing cooperation and dialogue”.
But there is still plenty to talk about in Washington. The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels have fuelled concerns that Islamic State could eventually target nuclear plants and develop radioactive “dirty bombs”. Two of the suicide bombers involved in this month’s attack secretly filmed the daily routine of the head of Belgium’s nuclear research and development programme and considered an attack on a nuclear site in the country, according to Belgian media. There will be a special session during the summit aimed at coordinating efforts to defeat Isis.
Experts warn that much of the world’s plutonium and highly enriched uranium remains vulnerable to theft at thousands of sites, including universities and hospitals. But Laura Holgate, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction, pointed to commitments from 30 countries at the 2014 summit to secure their most dangerous material. “The international community has made it harder than ever for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons, and that has made us all more secure,” she told reporters.
Then there is the North Korea question, following Pyongyang’s detonation of a nuclear device in January and long-range rocket launch a month later. On Thursday Obama will meet the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, followed by separate talks with President Xi Jinping of China. “The international community must remain united in the face of North Korea’s continued provocations,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
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